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ISU'S NEW ATHLETICS DIRECTOR JAMIE POLLARD KNEW WHAT HE WAS LOOKING FOR, AND HE FOUND IT IN AMES
In 1994 when Jamie Pollard was working at the University of Maryland for his mentor, athletics director Debbie Yow, Yow gave the young ex-accountant some good advice: Make a list of the universities at which you would most like to end up, then plan your career around getting there.
So Pollard made a list. Wisconsin, Indiana, Missouri, Iowa, Iowa State. He chose schools with Midwestern values, strong academic reputations, and highly competitive athletics conferences. Those attributes were perfect in the mind of the Wisconsin native; he just needed to achieve his goal of finding a permanent home. Pollard spent the last two years as deputy athletics director at Wisconsin, and he was offered but turned down the A.D. position at Indiana in 2004. A few years ago he crossed Iowa off the list, he says, because he didn’t feel like it was a place he could make a real difference anymore. By late last summer, the 40-year-old Pollard had worked his way more than halfway through the list.
Then the A.D. position at Iowa State came open. Pollard, who at the time was performing many of the duties of Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez as Alvarez began his final season coaching football, was paying attention.
There was just one problem: Even though Iowa State was on Pollard’s list of dream jobs, he had never once been to Ames.
But that problem had an easy solution. In this case, Pollard and his family piled into the car and went on the vacation of a lifetime to Ames, Iowa. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t really a vacation, but it did change their lives. The kids had a blast. They shopped at North Grand Mall, saw Reiman Gardens, and learned about a red bird named Cy. The family took in an authentic college town of a size they loved (“a company town where the university is the company,” Pollard notes), and saw a thriving research institution with lots of collegiate athletics potential. It was during that weekend trip, sitting and munching pizza in a Campustown restaurant, that Jamie and Ellen Pollard looked at one another and knew: Iowa State indeed deserved its spot on the list.
At that time ISU’s A.D. search had not begun, so Pollard knew he had to be discreet. He didn’t even know yet if Iowa State would consider his application, and of course he knew his kids could spill the beans all over Madison if he told them the real reason for their visit. So he let the process run its course, and before long the Pollard children were bouncing with delight at the news on the other end of the phone line: They were going back to Ames – that town where they stayed at the hotel with the cool indoor pool. They were going to be Cyclones.
Jamie and Ellen Pollard’s children are 8-year-old Thomas, 7-year-old Annie, 5-year-old Maggie, and 3-year-old James. James, who was born with a rare form of cancer in his tailbone, underwent the last in a grueling series of surgeries this fall but will continue to require physical treatment and monitoring. Easy access to the highly regarded Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines helped solidify Pollard’s belief that Iowa State was the right place for his family.
Family and career are by far the two most important things to Pollard, who says it was essential that the move to Ames be beneficial not just to him and to Ellen, but to his children. “[The ‘vacation’] ended up being good because…they knew where Ames was, what a Cyclone was, and they could envision where they were moving. They’ve transitioned extremely well.”
Pollard says his own transition from Badger to Cyclone was a quick – yet painful – one. His first official day of work was Oct. 1, the day of Iowa State’s heartbreaking double overtime football loss at Nebraska. “I told Coach McCarney that I knew I was a Cyclone after that game because I had butterflies in my stomach during the game, and then it was like someone kicked me in the gut after we lost it,” Pollard says.
“I know a lot of fans felt that way, but on Friday I was a Badger fan. By Saturday I had completely switched, and that’s not easy to do. I just love competition, and I got thrust right into that [on my first day]. I love the action that’s in our business. It’s intense.”
“Intensely competitive” has always described Pollard, a University of Wisconsin-Osh Kosh graduate who won the 1987 Division III national championship in the 5,000-meter run. His mother still has all his elementary school report cards saved in a box. “I got all As,” Pollard says, “but I got Cs in citizenship. There would be notes that say, ‘Can’t stand to lose.’ I can’t stand to lose. I’m not saying I’m a bad sport, but I just don’t accept losing.”
Pollard left his job at Arthur Andersen & Company in 1989 when he realized that competitive spirit would be better utilized in the college athletics environment. “There are many other things you can do with your career that would take less time and are probably easier to do,” Pollard says of his decision to pursue
a career in athletics administration,“so don’t do this unless you have an absolute passion for it.”
Pollard’s passion for his chosen career path is clear. In the past 16 years he has worked for St. Louis University, the University of Maryland, and the University of Wisconsin. At each institution he rose steadily in responsibility. Today, having acquired his ultimate job, he says he hopes Iowa State will be his final stop: “I guess nothing’s forever, but I took this job thinking I would be here for the rest of my life. I hope Iowa State wants me for the rest of my life.”
To get the job started, Pollard says he has several ideas about what he would like to accomplish during his first year. The first, he says, is raising the expectation level of Iowa State’s fans. “From football to cross country and swimming and to our entire athletics department staff, we need to raise the expectation level,” Pollard says. “Our fans should be upset [when we lose]. I’m glad they are. Because if they accept it, we’re in trouble.”
Another goal for Pollard is what he calls “creating and communicating a vision for the future of ISU athletics.” Pollard says his vision starts with getting everyone in the Cyclone family out of his or her comfort zone. “We don’t need to be the team that’s the worst funded in our conference,” Pollard says. “We need to do something about that – create that vision of where we want to go, and quit talking about what we don’t have. The fact that the budget is what it is is a symptom, not a problem. The problem is that we don’t have a vision of where we want to get to. And if 10 years from now Iowa State doesn’t want me here any longer because we couldn’t get to that vision, it’s going to be because it can’t be done.”
A third goal is to develop a master plan for Iowa State’s facilities that is tied to the overall vision for the program. Pollard says he hopes to have a set of goals and objectives for improving facilities outlined by the start of the next academic year. His final first-year goal is, quite simply, to ensure that members of his athletics department staff have fun and enjoy their work to the fullest.
Pollard has faith that Iowa State can accomplish these goals for one simple reason: It has good people who truly care. He says it is an honor and a privilege for him, Ellen, Thomas, Annie, Maggie, and James to be welcomed into the Cyclone family. “Everybody told me coming in that the people here are wonderful,” he says. “They’ve been that and more.
“I feel an immense sense of responsibility in accepting this position, because I feel like I have the weight of the future of Cyclone athletics on my back – and that’s okay; I accepted that and I want that. To me, being a Cyclone means I have a huge responsibility to lead this athletics program to a place that will make everybody proud to be an alum or fan of this institution.”
About the Writer | Kate Bruns is assistant director of communications for the Iowa State University Alumni Association.